Bill Blair, Canada’s pot czar, doesn’t sound impressed with the leak of the news that marijuana use will be legal by Canada Day 2018.
“That isn’t my date,” he harrumphed in an interview Wednesday. “I haven’t said anything about a timeline and the speculation is highly aspirational. There’s tons of work to do.”
But the former Toronto police chief turned MP said progress has been made since the task force charged with drawing up a framework for cannabis legalization reported in December.
One area where the task force was forced to concede it had no answers was the subject of impaired driving, where it said tests of drug-levels in bodily fluids could not be used as a reliable indicator of the degree of a driver’s impairment.
However, Blair said the government has been running trials of roadside oral-fluid tests in eight jurisdictions and he is “satisfied and pleased” with the results. “The devices have a good track record in other countries but we wanted to see whether they work in Canada because it’s a cold place,” he said.
If recommended by the appropriate scientific authority, Blair suggested legislative changes will be made to approve the use of saliva-based roadside devices in Canada.
“I am confident our government will ensure we have the legislation, the technology and the training for law enforcement and prosecutors to keep the roads safe,” he said. “Forty per cent of young adults in Canada use this drug and it is shocking how many think it doesn’t affect their ability to drive.”
The provinces will play an important role, Blair said, hailing a law in B.C. that allows police to suspend on the spot the licenses of young drivers who may not be impaired but whose ability to drive has been compromised by drink or drugs. “It has been a very effective deterrent,” he said. “We will try to build upon the lessons of that.”
One area of concern to producers is the ability to advertise and brand their products. The task force suggested the government require plain packaging for cannabis products, so that only the company name, price and drug-strength are visible on the label. On Wednesday Blair offered no comfort for producers who want to be able to differentiate their product via marketing.
While other jurisdictions like Colorado approached pot-legalization through a commercial lens, with the aim being to maximize revenue, he said his government has focused on public health.
“It’s not the government’s intention to promote the use of this drug. We want to restrict its access to kids. We have the highest rates of cannabis use in the world among our young people. It’s unacceptable. I’m not trying to get out ahead of the decisions parliament or the government will make but I think there is sense in the task force’s recommendations,” he said.
If the first goal is to protect kids and vulnerable people, the second is to undermine the black market.
Blair said he is aware that if there is insufficient supply of the drug legally, the price will be too high to compete with illegal dealers.
There are currently fewer than 40 licensed producers supplying Canada’s medical marijuana market, with many new applicants seeking to gain licenses. But he said no new producers will be added until legislation is tabled next month.
“Capacity is an issue — it’s basic economics that if you don’t have adequate supply, it adversely affects price and that adversely affects the ability to compete with the criminal black market. But there has to be a semblance of order and it’s not right to build up capacity before legislation comes forward,” he said. “I recognize we’re talking about cultivation of a biological product and it’s going to take time. But, frankly, I’m confident in the application process and in the ability of applicants to increase production.”
On delivery and distribution, Blair said he is keen to work with the provinces. “It will roll out in different ways in different places,” he said.
Canada Post has been “an effective and secure” delivery system for medical marijuana.
“But whether or not a province decides that’s the system they want to adopt, or whether they want to put in place some kind of retail outlet, that’s up to them. As long as they restrict access to youth and provide effective competition to the black market, we’ll support their decisions.”
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